To MFA or not to MFA?

If you are in your last year of your undergraduate degree, you’re likely staring down a lot of things: getting your portfolio ready to go, applying for jobs, GRADUATING! You might be excited, terrified, or everything in-between. You also might seriously be thinking about graduate school. As someone who studied graphic design as an undergraduate (at Iowa State University) and later pursued a graduate degree (University of Minnesota, Twin Cities) and eventually became a graphic design educator, I’ve seen some sides of this complex equation and have some thoughts to share.

First, it’s important to know that a Masters of Fine Arts (MFA) in graphic design (or visual communication design as many now call graphic design), a Masters of Graphic Design (MGD), or a Doctorate of Philosophy in Design (Ph.D. in Design) are all considered terminal degrees in graphic design. This means that they allow you—as a holder of the degree—to teach at an accredited institution of higher education in graphic design.

If you’re thinking that you don’t want to teach and you don’t care about terminal degrees—and thus it shouldn’t matter—think again. Graphic design, as a profession, must be clear about what qualifies someone to teach, and this matters for a lot of reasons (our profession’s standing in higher education, how the public perceives our work, and much, much more). Functionally, however, the requirements to study at the MFA (or higher) level are important, and here’s my two cents.

MFA and higher degrees in graphic design do a few very important things. First, they investigate, interrogate, and build upon the issues, problems, and contexts of practice. This fundamentally requires an understanding of the nuances of professional work. And the only way we can get this knowledge is through the act of practice itself. Undergraduate (or any other type of) education frequently attempts to replicate practice, but it is not—and never can nor should be—practice.

Next, because the MFA prepares one to teach in higher education, I believe you must have at least some experience with professional practices. Dealing with clients, deadlines, budgets, service bureaus, colleagues, etcetera informs our teaching of the next generations of designers.

Now you might be thinking, what is enough practice and what do I do now? I recommend working professionally for at least three to four years before graduate school. That sounds like an eternity, but it will fly by and you will learn more in that four years of practice than I can begin to summarize here.

If you’re worried that you’re not ready for prime time, think again. You are. Your education has prepared you well, giving you lots of opportunities to make, think, reflect, write, and prepare for practice. Your first job will be hard work, but you will learn something new every day. If you’re worried that you don’t have enough skills and abilities, take it upon yourself to keep learning. Go to AIGA Raleigh events. Take notes and follow-up by finding new resources (books, blogs, web sites, etc.). Meet other designers, ask what they do, and if they do something you want to learn about, ask them for tips and resources. Designers are—in my experience—a friendly bunch, happy to share stories and insights, and keen to help aspiring designers make it. Reach out and you might be surprised at all those people willing to help.

Lastly, when you’ve got your experience, start to think about what you’d like to study as a graduate student. What aspects of graphic design keep you up at night (history? Information design? The newest media? How to expand your creative skill set?). These itching questions should help you decide what type of professors, school, and program are best for you. Then as you consider graduate schools, think about the size of the program (is there a large group that starts each year, or is it more an independent-study style program?), the expertise of the faculty (are the faculty letterpress geeks? Technoweenies? History buffs?), and all the other criteria that are important to you (name recognition? university? location?). While you can answer some of these questions through Google, the best way to explore these questions is by talking with faculty and getting to know them prior to applying. Because when you do go to graduate school, what’s most important is finding the right fit between you and your ideal program.

Blog Contributor:

Kate LaMere, PhD
Assistant Professor and Area Coordinator of Graphic Design
School of Art and Design, East Carolina University

Learn more about Kate:
@pinkmonsterkate | LinkedIn 
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One response to “To MFA or not to MFA?

  1. Thank you for writing this, Kate! I graduated last May from NC State, and moved to Portland, OR in November for my first job. This is quite comforting to read. The question is definitely on my mind, I’m glad to know you recommend working for a few years before taking the plunge. Thanks for sharing!

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